To a generation that reveres digital giants like Amazon, Apple and Google, it is hard to convey how high and positive a profile General Electric had in the 20th century.
For the longest time, GE was a conglomerate — the term popularized in the 1960s for giant companies that were composed of a portfolio of businesses that were not logically related to each other.
Others in the category included giants like ITT, Gulf Western and Allied Signal.
Financial engineering was what kept these businesses afloat. The limits of financial engineering is what led to the downfall of nearly all conglomerates following their peak in the 1970s.
GE was different. Its management competencies were held to be so superior that it was seemingly able, decade after decade, to add new divisions, grow current businesses and have outstanding profitability.
So it was big news earlier this month when GE said it would spin off its health care division in early 2023 and its energy businesses a year later. That would leave its aviation unit as its remaining business.
The company seemingly peaked in the last two decades of the 20th century when Jack Welch led the company. Revenue jumped fivefold to $130 billion, according to a New York Times article on the spinoff news. Share value soared from $14 billion to $410 billion.
Star managers were trained and moved up and grew the company more, the article said.
Forbes named Welch the "manager of the century." Financial Times named GE "the world's most respected company."
Unfortunately, once Welch left his role in 2000, the firm stagnated.
Welch's successes were substantive and real. But the remarkable consistency of GE's earnings under Welch, who died in 2020, was a phenomenon unnatural for a large company — and would be nearly impossible to achieve today.
Welch accomplished this feat leveraging financial tools, which, though entirely legal at the time, would be derided as gimmicks today.
The market has responded generally favorable to GE's news. The decision's logic was clear. After all, GE had already lost its spot on the Dow Jones Industrial Average — reflecting its awkward balance as a business.